When Angels First Trod the Earth: A Review of Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith

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A Cave at Qumran

It was 113 degrees when I was at Qumran a few weeks ago.  Set up on a ridge near the Dead Sea, the site is unforgiving—no escape from the sun, salt flats and barren wilderness in every direction, a claustrophobic gift shop and lunch room packed with tourists who never seem to make it to the ruins.  One hour and a chicken schnitzel later and I was ready to go.

The folks who built Qumran?  They stayed for 200 years.

If you know Qumran at all, you’ve probably heard of it in connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in caves near this site beginning in 1947.  The scrolls revealed the presence of an ascetic, dissident sect of Jewish religious revolutionaries who made their home here during the volatile period from the mid-2nd century BCE to 68 CE.  A video at the visitor’s center suggests that John may have been a member here before becoming “the Baptist” and heading over to the Jordan River.  Whether he was or wasn’t, the scrolls show that the world in which John and Jesus operated was full of ferment and change and the ideas that we associate with later Christianity and Judaism were finding their first expression in places like Qumran.

Philip Jenkins, in his new book Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made our Modern  Religious World, makes a sweeping claim in the opening pages:

During the two tempestuous centuries from 250 through 50 BCE, the Jewish and Jewish-derived world was a fiery crucible of values, faiths, and ideas, from which emerged wholly new religious syntheses. Such a sweeping transformation of religious thought in such a relatively brief period makes this one of the most revolutionary times in human culture. These years in effect created Western consciousness.

Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, has made a career out of helping us look at Christianity from new perspectives ever since he made a splash with his 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.  That book forced U.S. Christians who were mired in narratives of decline to grapple with the explosive growth of the faith that was taking place in the Southern hemisphere.  Maybe, Jenkins suggested, Christianity was just making one of its periodic, geographic shifts, this time from the West to the South.

In Crucible of Faith, Jenkins wants to lift up a period often neglected by biblical students—the so-called intertestamental period that is not reflected in most Protestant bibles.  For many Christians, the biblical story skips directly from the return of the exiles to Jerusalem in the 6th-century BCE to Jesus’s appearance in the city at the start of the Common Era.  Jenkins points out, however, that much of what we associate with the new Christian worldview, from angels to the role of Satan to apocalyptic expectations, was forming in this period, particularly the 200 year window that he calls the Crucible.

Jenkins doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground in this book. Scholars have been mining extrabiblical sources like 1 Enoch and Jubilees for many years now and have seen what Jenkins describes.  What Jenkins does effectively is to tell this story clearly and with an eye to a general readership.  The result is convincing, if a bit repetitious.  It also helps that figures like Judas Maccabees and Herod the Great make such great copy.

The kind of scholarship Jenkins does makes biblical literalists nervous. He dates biblical books long after the periods in which they are set, (such as Daniel, a putative narrative of the Babylonian Exile, which Jenkins (and many other scholars) date to the 2nd century BCE). He also finds major historical forces at work, influencing the development of religious thought, such as the cataclysmic entry of the Hellenistic world into the Middle East with the arrival of Alexander the Great.  For those who like their biblical inspiration unadulterated by current events, this can be distressing.

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Philip Jenkins

But Jenkins’ measured view and sturdy method are convincing and he forces the reader to look at old assumptions in new ways.  For instance, the story of early Christian church in the West is often told as an attempt to graft Greek philosophy onto Hebrew thought.  But Jenkins makes clear that that confrontation happened long before the Christian moment and the Judaism that Jesus’ disciples swam in was fully engaged with Greek ideas and a Greek cosmology and had been for some time.

Looking at the excavated ritual baths and scriptoriums of Qumran, it’s hard to imagine a revolution sprouting from this desert site.  But something big was happening that pushed this disaffected group out from Jerusalem.  They saw angels of light and darkness at work in the world.  The Roman legions may have eventually succeeded in reducing Qumran and Jerusalem to dust, but the religious dynamism unleashed in the Crucible years goes on.

Can Anyone Find Home in North Carolina?: A Review of The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis

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Photo by Mika Matin on Unsplash

‘The intellect when it really tries

can for a time replace the sun

though it won’t ripen strawberries.’

—Anna Kamieńska, ‘Classicism’

It is often the curse of those who return to their small town homes after education afar that they feel an alienation from the people and customs that formed them.  Not that Henry Aster was ever of a piece with his surroundings.  Growing up in the northwestern-most corner of North Carolina, where the state meets Tennessee and Virginia, Henry was always unusual—preternaturally eloquent and bookish beyond belief.

When Aster returned from college to begin a law practice in Old Buckram, sporting a new wife, they took up residence in the most discordant house in the area—a glass and iron monstrosity built by an avant-garde architect that had been the scene of a grisly murder-suicide involving a family of five.  The “vulture house” perched on the edge of a mountain above the town and, with its massive library, became the perfect lair for Henry as he pursued his real avocation—writing a book, despite no discernible gifts for communication.  “Aster’s work, for all its brilliance, is impenetrable,” one reviewer noted, (21).

Aster is the looming presence in Phillip Lewis’s debut work of fiction, The Barrowfields.  Like Thomas Wolfe, another North Carolina writer, who also haunts these pages, Lewis’s Aster tragically learns he can’t go home again.  He occasionally looks the part of Wolfe, an obsessive writer scribbling passages of beauty that never really land, or Atticus Finch, as when he retrieves the town’s only copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying from a book-burning crowd on the titular Barrowfields, a barren patch of the town center.  But he doesn’t connect and he’s miserable, just like his growing family in the gloomy house.

Aster knows how to play the part of small town insider just enough to feel a fraud.  

He knew how to cock his head just right, and hold his mouth open, and say “You don’t say” and “Damn,” when he heard a remarkable story, and “Yep” and “Naw” and always “Come with us,” at the end of any conversation with an acquaintance met in an unexpected place…he could do it well, while in his mind he must have been smack-dab in the middle of Yoknapatawpha County. (46-7)

But he shares an affinity with the preacher in the small church the family attends.  The preacher knows the struggle of doubt.  Without the resources of education or even reading the Bible, he staves off the terrors with words.  “Only by raising his exultant voice and filling the air with the sound of the Word of God would the demons be run from the sacred temple.” (82)

Aster writes from a similar compulsion.  “I write,” he says, “because its one of the only things that seems real to me…It’s the only way short of death to make time stop.” (45)  Those who know the power of books and writing will recognize the insight.

Aster’s disappearance mid-way through The Barrowfields sets the stage for his son, who narrates the book, to find his awkward way into adulthood.  In the second half, the book threatens to become a romance, then a Pat Conroy novel, before returning to Appalachian Gothic.  

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Phillip Lewis

Lewis’s writing is liquid and evocative, just like Thomas Wolfe, but as with Wolfe, the characters shrink into insignificance given the scale of the canvas.  There is too much land, too much vision, too much within us and beyond us to allow simple stories, even our desperate, tragic stories, to take the spotlight.

Which makes Aster’s alienation all the more emblematic of the limits of the mind against such a landscape.  It can liberate some, but entrap others.  And for all its brilliance, as Anna Kamieńska has it, it can’t ripen strawberries.

Lewis continues in a long tradition of homesick American writers.  It’s a beautiful but unsatisfying read that gestures at a place it can never quite arrive.  I feel the same about Wolfe.  After all he was the bard of home.  And I felt cold comfort traveling with him there, too.

Whatever we can do or say must be forever hillbound.  Our senses have been fed by our terrific land; our blood has learned to run to the imperial pulse of America which, leaving, we can never lose and never forget.  We walked along a road in Cumberland, and stooped, because the sky hung down so low; and when we ran away from London, we went by little rivers in a land just big enough.  And nowhere that we went was far: the earth and the sky were close and near.  And the old hunger returned–the terrible and obscure hunger that haunts and hurts Americans, and that makes us exiles at home and strangers wherever we go.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

Hogarth Press provided a copy of this book to the reviewer.

Small Churches Can Plan for a Healthy Future

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I like my doctor.  Even with all the needles and probes, I trust that she’s using the information she gleans through my brief discomforts to tell me something I need to hear. But I don’t always pay attention.

For several years we had a little ritual over one persistent health issue:

“Your cholesterol is high.”

“Still?”

She gives me a wry smile.  “Yes, still. I think we ought to look at a treatment plan.”

“Didn’t you suggest that last year?”

“Yes, and we decided you would try controlling it through diet.”

“Because you wanted to put me on pills and I don’t like the idea of taking pills every day.”

“Right. But maybe you’d like to try them to see if it makes a difference. This is a long-term condition for you and it could be dangerous if you don’t lower your bad cholesterol levels.”

“Thanks, Doc, but I think I’ll try diet again.”

One year (and frequent slips involving BBQ beef brisket) later, we’d have the same conversation.  Until finally I realized that my doctor was trying to tell me something important.  I started on the pills.

Kay Kotan and Phil Schroeder, both directors of Congregational Development for United Methodist annual conferences, know the interplay we have with our doctors.  The ways we appreciate their knowledge and yet resist making the changes they recommend.  The ways we often come around when they can get us to face the facts.  That’s why Kotan and Schroeder use a medical metaphor to diagnose options in their new book Small Church Checkup: Assessing Your Church’s Health and Creating a Treatment Plan [Discipleship Resources, 2018].

Sometimes your doctor needs to shock you into recognition that there is a problem, and that’s where the authors of this book start on the first page.  Quoting Charita Goshay, they say, “an estimated 80 percent of churches are flat or declining; 5,600 close every year.” (15)  That’s the future for churches that believe that they can just get by on the way they’ve always done it before (weaknesses for BBQ brisket be damned!).  But Kotan and Schroeder want to offer a way forward:

“We can choose our story.  We do not have to allow our story to unfold without our intervention, intentionality, faithfulness, and prayer.  We can choose.” (15)

What follows over the course of the next brisk ten chapters is a practical guide to diagnosing your congregation’s condition and choosing a course towards a different future.

Kotan and Schroeder believe that most small churches (fewer than 100 in attendance) fall into one of three types:

  1. Not Yet Big Churches that are vital and growing and may move to becoming medium-sized or large churches.
  2. Stable Small Churches that have found a way to stay vital and to serve the community despite not growing numerically.
  3. and Smaller Churches, which are declining in numbers and face serious questions about their ongoing viability.

The authors provide “Lab and Test Results,” encouraging small church leaders to look at a number of measures to determine their congregation’s health.  For instance, mapping the membership of the church can indicate how well the congregation is connecting to its surrounding community.  What’s the state of the church reserves compared to five years ago? How much of the building is being used and who’s using it?

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Along with this, the authors advise having some field trips to other churches and crucial conversations as a church to acknowledge that ‘business as usual’ is not an option.  After doing this work, congregations should be able to identify their condition and review the appropriate treatment plans available in three chapters related to the three types of small churches.

The treatment plans are not easy. Some involve major reorganization of a congregation to focus on priority items.  For instance, one recommendation for ‘Not Yet Big Churches’ is to develop a signature ministry and to empty the church’s calendar to plan for it.  Using ‘zero-based calendaring’ the congregation should ask: “If we were to do nothing that we have ever done before, what is the one thing we must put on the calendar?” (86-7)

For other churches, the hard part is emotional.  When a congregation has determined that it’s future is discontinuance, there can be a range of options from denial (and continuing until the resources run out) to a planned closure (with acknowledged grief work and a legacy gift to other ministry) to death and rebirth as a new congregation.

A book alone cannot make the difference for a small church.  Kotan and Schroeder seem to recognize this when they conclude by saying, “If you are struggling to choose a treatment plan, please reach out.  Sometimes this road is just too hard to journey alone.” (121) My own experience is that churches need the prompt and coaching of outside help to navigate a real examination of their mission.

admin-ajax-cfp-120x120On the Eastern Shore District, where I serve, we have developed a Church Transformation Team with the help of Plowpoint Ministries that initiates a “health assessment” in churches through a 2-hour Bible Study and crucial conversation, inviting teams of church leaders into a more extended study that incorporates much of what Small Church Checkup recommends.  Our team uses an excellent resource by Beth Crissman and Nancy Rankin, Choosing the Faithful Path: A Bible Study for Discerning a Faithful Future

The unusual period that began after World War II and extended until about the turn of the millennium, obscured the reality that refocusing on mission is a perennial task of the church.  When the culture was supporting church life and financial resources were plentiful, most of the mainline churches coasted on that wave.  We are in a new day now and there are still opportunities for growth in small churches.  But we will need to remember why we’re here and heed the advice of those who care for our health.

By the way, I went back to the doctor last month for my annual physical.  Two years in to my treatment plan, she called my cholesterol level ‘excellent.’ Now about this weight thing…

Little Houses and Big Truths on the Prairie: Caroline Fraser’s Laura Ingalls Wilder

It takes a lot of work to uncover what really happened to the vast prairies of the North American Midwest.  You have to dig under Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous 1890 declaration that the frontier had made America what it was and now it was gone.  Pioneer famers, Turner said, had busted sod, felled forests, and turned “‘free land’ into golden grain,” furnishing “the forces dominating American character.” (173)

You have to dig beneath the Homestead Act’s grand vision.  Beneath the sepia romance of Dorothy’s Kansas.  Beneath Willa Cather’s Nebraska and Hamlin Garland’s Wisconsin.  And beneath the reveries of the most beloved of the “troubadours of the prairie”—Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Caroline Fraser has done this excavation in her engaging and thorough historical biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  She begins, not with Wilder’s version of the Dakotas with Laura and Mary picking wildflowers where “the untouched grasslands were sweet and clean, as if the land itself, before the plow, breathed the essence of purity.” (354)  

Instead she begins with death—an 1862 massacre in Minnesota shortly before Wilder’s birth in which Dakota Indians fought back against white incursion.  The retaliation of the settlers was bloody and vicious, but it set the stage for the further westward expansion.  The Homestead Act gave permission, Fraser notes, but 

“ultimately, it was not policy or legislation that opened the far west…It was wrath and righteous retribution that did it, forever changing the contour and condition of the land, pushing settlers farther west than they had ever gone before, flooding the prairies with farms, towns, fields, grain elevators, and train stations.” (24)

The familiar characters of Wilder’s Little House books are here in the first section of Fraser’s book—Ma and Pa and Nellie and the gang.  But the story is more morally ambiguous than we remember.  Laura’s father seems less stable and more willing to lay claim to recognized Indian land. The poverty they face is chronic, the living conditions are brutal, and the farming fantasies are easily brought to ruin by locusts and price shocks.  It’s a gripping story with far more nuance than the broad celebrations of the pioneers that would come later.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder

By the time the real Laura Wilder and her husband, Almanzo, arrive in Mansfield, Missouri, where they lived the rest of their lives, it’s not clear how Laura’s childhood would find its way into American lore.  At their farm on Rocky Ridge, the couple continued to be enmeshed in the farming life, experiencing the Populist Party heyday of the 1890s, the New Deal reforms, and the Dust Bowl.  Laura began writing occasional newspaper columns and went to work for the local branch of the National Farm Loan Association.

It was their daughter, Rose, who was the catalyst for the writing life to come.  Rose comes across as a high-flying idealist shaped by the yellow journalism in the air in San Francisco where she first goes to write.  Her writing has verve and energy and plays loosely with the truth.  All of that comes into play as she partners with her mother to produce the wildly successful Little House series that finally lifts Wilder out of poverty.

What Rose also brought to the table was an ideological bent that was fiercely individualist and libertarian.  An associate and admirer of Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane published her own manifesto of unbridled capitalism, 1943’s Discovery of Freedom.  Fraser lays out how Lane’s political narrative, which her mother shared to a more moderate degree, helped shape the narrative of the Little House books, embracing the image of the heroic pioneer farmers taming a vast land.  Wilder provided the raw material and the familial warmth that made the series endearing.

Fraser is a little too invested in the family drama between the mother and daughter, which seems more clearly delineated for her than it does to me.  Lane is continually described as being on the verge of a mental health crisis but somehow manages to go on and even succeed. Fraser notes that the two were at odds on money and writing process, but again they managed both without a complete falling out.

If you resist the temptation to get pulled into the drama, there is a more powerful picture here about the way that the Little House books and our other stories shape the way we see even the land in front of us.  Is it a land, vast, open, and bountiful, that rewards hardworking risk-takers?  Or does our reckless exploitation of it run inevitably into the land’s limitations?  Are the native inhabitants of the land consequential actors or exotic curiosities or, as Wilder sometimes has it, tragic, failed defenders of a prairie purity? Is the heartland the source of American character or a breeding ground for grievance and a hollowed out casualty of global economic trends?

These are not easy questions but we can at least have better stories to help us see what and where we are.  Wilder and Lane gave us some of those, even if their stories were limited by their times and political interests. As we have pursued it on Heartlands, there are more stories to be told and more lands to discover even when we feel we’ve already been there.

Hat tip to Deborah Lewis for getting me to this book.

There’s Something Still the Matter with Kansas: Thomas Frank and a Sinking Society

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Thomas Frank is the kind of writer who gets trotted out when the national media wants to cast its distracted gaze on the hinterlands.  It helped that he wrote a book a decade and more back about his home state titled What’s the Matter with Kansas? After the 2016 election a whole lot of pundits wanted to know the answer to that question.  Why would so many people in the heartland vote for a candidate with big city, Acela Corridor brashness and a class profile so different from the majority of his voters?

When he wrote that book in 2004, Frank was pointing to the populism to come, noting the many working class folks who have been growing ever more distanced from the elite who, unlike them, have benefitted from the cosmopolitan world that global economic trading and technological innovation have created.  Frank himself may have wandered from his thesis in the Obama years, if the essays collected in his latest book are any indication.  Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society shows a writer searching for a master narrative that only snaps into focus with the presidential election.

To crib from Samuel Johnson, there’s nothing like a catastrophe to concentrate the mind.

Catastrophe.  Oblivion.  A sinking ship.  That’s what Frank sees when he looks at America.  (The ship also graces the cover of the book.)  In early essays dating from 2011-2014, his targets are diffuse.  As in Sarah Kendzior’s essays in her recent collection, The View from Flyover Country, Frank’s preoccupations in this period are with the academic world, journalism, inequality, and even the empty sloganeering of civic boosters.  (Don’t get him started on ‘vibrancy’!)

As the apocalypse…er…election approaches, however, you can see him returning to Kansas, and Missouri, and all the places that were enthralled with the Trump candidacy, trying to figure out what is going on. He recognizes that the ever-present populist impulse in rural America has no voice on the left today.  Democratic leaders, who used to champion the interests of unions and the working class against Wall St. have now thrown their lot with money.  Insurgent voices were actively marginalized and the professional class has developed a ‘softly, softly’ approach to change.  Big ideas couldn’t succeed, this group felt, so they had to be smothered.

At the same time, as prosperous, two-coast America divorced itself from the deindustralized, depopulating, despairing countryside, “the Trump movement [was characterized] as a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race hatred.  Its partisans not only are incomprehensible, they are not really worth comprehending.” (173)

Rural America picked up on the condescension, and Frank sees it as an indication of one of the key challenges facing those who would turn the country a different way.  “It is uncompromising moral stridor that has come to dominate the opinion pages and the airwaves of the enlightened—a continuous outpouring of agony and aghastitude at Trump and his works.” (218)  Without some introspection and reconnection with its traditional base, Frank feels, the Democratic Party is condemned to a future in which the only satisfaction it can expect is “a finger wagging in some vulgar proletarian’s face, forever.” (222)

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Thomas Frank

I was glad that Frank eventually found his groove in this book.  Before he returned, late in the book, to Marceline, Missouri to see what had happened to Walt Disney’s hometown Main Street, (the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A.), I worried that he had was leaving the Midwest behind for shinier objects elsewhere.  But the crisis of the current moment brought him back to his roots.  

The title bespeaks a gloomy outlook.  “This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve,” he says on the opening page. (1)  But for all his alarm bells about “the golden age of corruption,” (2) “the casual dishonesty of politics” spilling over into everyday life (4), and the con game the economy has become for so many Americans, Frank still believes in the essential wisdom of where he came from.  Even if he doesn’t think we’re in that Kansas anymore.

Metropolitan Books provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Fracking & A Fractured Land

The Washington County Fair in 2010 should have been unalloyed joy for Stacey Haney and her family.  After all, Haney’s 14-year-old son, Harley, and his goat, Boots, took the Grand Champion Showmanship award.  Paige, her 11-year-old daughter, got awards for her two rabbits, Pepsi & Phantom, and for her Mexi-SPAM Mac and Cheese entry in the cooking contest.  They had a load of ribbons to take back to their small farm in Amity, Pennsylvania.

But things were not O.K.

Harley was sick–some kind of strange stomach ailment that left him listless and unable to get to school.  Stacey had an odd rash.  And the neighbor’s goat, Cummins, had died, his insides crystallized, “as if he’d drunk antifreeze.” (12)  Perhaps, they began to think, it had something to do with the fracking wells and waste pond just up the hill.

Hydraulic fracturing technology, or fracking, transformed America’s energy market in the last decade.  By breaking apart shale deep in the earth using millions of gallons of pressurized water and chemicals, the fracking boom released abundant natural gas.  The gas burned cleaner than coal and it was underneath American soil, enabling even environmental advocates to imagine that it might be a bridge fuel to a future when renewables could shoulder most of the load.

In places like Appalachia, where the Haneys live, the new industry brought new life, new money, and new visibility to a region dragged over by previous energy booms.  Landowners, including Haney, got paid for the mineral rights to their land.  Extraction companies like Range Resources touted the millions they contributed to local communities through impact fees and road improvements.  One township supervisor “called them a ‘godsend.’” (280)

But there were other impacts and the Haneys were feeling them.  Over the course of eight years, as Eliza Griswold tracks this family in her powerful new book, they lose their health, their animals, their house, and their trust in just about everyone except a pair of crusading lawyers who tilt at the windmills of industry and the government agencies that should be protecting them.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America is the kind of propulsive read that marks our great story-telling journalist/writers today.  Griswold uses her extensive visits to the region and understanding of this one family to tell a story that is much larger.  She is telling us about small things like county fairs, hard-working single mothers, the ties that bind together neighbors, and the persistent pleasures of small town life.  But she’s also telling us about God, politics, government, industry, and the perils of living in a resource-rich, desperately poor region.

It’s about America, and given the state of things at the moment, that makes it a tumultuous read.  Griswold’s writing has all the flair and clarity of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, but unlike that uplifting story of a World War II hero displaying courage and endurance in the face of unimaginable hardship in defense of America, Amity and Prosperity takes us into the places where that endurance is not always recognized and the victories not so clear.  In the eight years since Hillenbrand’s book was published, we’ve moved from Unbroken to Fractured.

Griswold may seem like an unlikely chronicler of this tale.  The veteran journalist has spent years in far-flung places around the globe.  Her last book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, went deep into the heart of Africa and Asia tracing the front line of religious and ideological conflict.  What brought her back was her realization that 

“so many of the problems of collective poverty plaguing Africa and Asia were becoming more evident in America.  I decided it was time to come home, to turn my attention to how we tell stories about systemic failings here in the United States.” (307)

Not that she came back to write a strident, partisan critique.  Amity & Prosperity is far from that kind of book.  Its characters, including Stacey Haney, are complex people who don’t fall easily into stereotypes.  There are plenty of Trump voters, but there are skeptics, too.  What they share, from the days when coal was king, is

“a sense of marginalization and disgust, both with companies that undermine the land and with the urbanites who flick on lights without considering the miners who risk their lives to power them.  Today, the fracking boom has reinforced those convictions.” (6)

Religious viewpoints here verge on the fatalistic.  One older woman says that the poisoned waters from fracking are a Revelation-foretold sign of the end times.  “God permitted this to happen because the U.S. has gotten so far from him,” she tells Griswold.  “I just hope we’re raptured out of here.” (268-9)

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Eliza Griswold

Stacey sees it in more personal terms.  The utilitarian arguments from the Obama Administration become for her a kind of cruel sentence.  The greatest good for the greatest number of people meant that “it was Stacey against the Bangladeshi woman who was losing her farm to a rising sea.  It was Stacey against factory workers eager for a manufacturing revival.  It was Stacey against most of the world, and Stacey was losing.” (223)

The rural landscape Griswold reveals bears resemblance to my own Eastern Shore of Virginia as Monica Hesse described it in last year’s American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land.  Written in a similar style, Hesse’s book also uses a narrow story, (in her case, a string of arsons), to uncover a larger picture.  What it’s about is personal but it’s also about “America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be.”

These reports from the field by remarkable journalists are not encouraging.  Griswold depicts a creaky, hapless, corrupt federal apparatus that is less and less able to confront powerful interests and to address the concerns of rural residents who do not trust the government.  Those who do try to make a stand, like Stacey and the valiant lawyers Griswold describes as Mr. & Mrs. Atticus Finch, must be committed to years of painstaking work with little pay and no guarantee of success.

It’s a credit to Griswold’s talents that she keeps the suspense about the outcome going until the very end.  It’s up to the reader to discern if the best outcome the book describes is the haul of ribbons at the county fair in 2010, which seems so long ago.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Look for my interview with Eliza Griswold, coming soon.

No One’s Anything:  A Reflection on Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason

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photo by Oscar Keys via Unsplash

Peter Surran, is a pastor, teacher, EMT, building inspector, and a good friend.  He’s also a heck of a writer.  I’ve been wanting to get him on the blog for awhile and finally roped him in with a review of Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens For a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.  Enjoy:

I bustled into my 40’s pretty sure I knew how I was going to die.  Heart disease and colon cancer run in my family, so I hit the Middle Ages with a plan of attack. I was going to go on a diet and get screened for polyps.  I have had some success with the diet (did you know it is really diet AND exercise, not diet and/or?) and I followed my doctor’s advice by submitting a poop sample. It turns out my sample got lost, or the results did, because I never heard back until I harassed the doctor’s office and he finally called me and said, “Your poop was negative.  There, don’t you feel better?” 

No, I did not feel better, and reading Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens For A Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved made me feel even worse.

Bowler was someone who had it all, according to her own definition: 

“Married in my twenties, a baby in my thirties, I won a job at my alma mater straight out of graduate school. I felt breathless with the possibilities.” (xiv) 

Having spent so much time studying the prosperity gospel and those who adhere to it, she had, to an extent, bought into it. Until she didn’t.

The foul ball that crashed through the window of her contentment was a cancer diagnosis.  In this, Bowler was certainly not alone.  According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 1,735,350 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2018.  That means there will be almost 2,000,000 brand new cancer stories.  

Not all of those new patients are Kate Bowler, of course.  Not all have the educational background to reflect deeply and write so well. That’s the first thing.  Of course, not everyone had so ironically invested so much time studying the prosperity gospel, which teachings clashed so audibly with her reality. And not everyone was positioned with connections at Duke University to get their insurance to cover an experimental treatment program, which not everyone can get into because not everyone has what Bowler calls the “magic cancer,” which would potentially respond to the treatment.

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Kate Bowler

That’s what makes this book so damned scary.  The only reason that Kate Bowler lived to write it is because she is, in fact, Kate Bowler.  Everything aligned so that she might suffer through treatments which give her about 60 more days until it’s time to do it all over again.  It might not be how we would define prosperity, but it’s living, and it’s a life only she could live, 60 days at a time.

She doesn’t like the Job comparison.  It can’t be helped.  But not for the obvious reasons.  Well, maybe those, but for others, too.  Mainly because Job is a thumb in the eye of the certainty crowd.  The guy you’d never expect to lose it all does somehow. He gets it all back in the end, but I suspect that was added to please the masses, like the fake ending of Mark’s gospel.  One of the beauties of Bowler’s book is that there is no neat wrap-up.  All we know is that she gets to have another 60 days.  

What would we do if we thought we only had 60 days left to live?  What would we do if we went to the doctor one day for a routine physical and left there knowing that we had, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, “cancer of the everything”?  What would you do if you found out you were in perfect health and would live another 50 years?

I came away from Everything Happens understanding that no one’s anything is ever the same as anyone else’s.   And I don’t really know how I’m going to die.  I could be polyp-free and get hit by a bus.  The main section of the book ends with the sentence, “I will die, yes, but not today.”  I hope she wrote that at night.  Only way to know for sure.  

Random House provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Peter’s the one on the right

Peter Surran lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with his family and three dogs and a cat.  He is pastor of Eastville Baptist Church, works full-time for the County of Accomack, part-time for Regent University’s English Department, and enjoys reading and writing when he is able.  Book reviews give him a great excuse to do both! 

Why We Don’t Care About ‘The National Water Situation’

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“For all my love of rivers, ‘our nation’s rivers’ have not moved me once.  The rivers that move me are those I’ve fished, canoed, slept beside, lived on, nearly drowned in, dreamed about, sipped tea and wine by, taught my kids to swim in, pulled a thousand fish from, fought and fought to defend.  I’ve come to suspect, for this reason, that is only the personal geography–the one experienced in daily depth–that can in fact be in-habited, and only the personal geography that has that Yeatsian ability to connect us, root to root, to people or places we’ve never met…

“The personal geographies conveyed via the arts converge in our interiors, create resonance, expand knowing through mysterious soul-to-soul empathy.  Whereas ‘the national water situation,’ I have come to suspect, will never create anything more artful than bureaucrats.”

—David James Duncan, My Story as Told by Water, p. 72-73.

If that stirred your soul…consider joining Alex for a writing retreat where the Tye meets the James

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A Quick Reminder of Why Wesley Still Matters

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John Wesley

John Wesley has been claimed by so many different heirs and used to so many and varied ends that it is refreshing to have someone like Hal Knight come along and point us back to the source.  John Wesley: Optimist of Grace, his new entry in the Cascade Companions series designed for nonspecialist readers, comes along just as the United Methodist Church is wrestling with what it means to be faithful to Wesleyan tradition in the 21st century.  Knight, who is a professor of Wesleyan Studies at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, is not going to take sides in that conversation, but he is going to point out why Wesley still matters.

In 10 brief chapters and a conclusion, Knight offers a biography of Wesley that is oriented toward his developing thought in relation to other movements of the 18th century, particularly Moravian and Calvinist strains.  Knight traces Wesley from his early (and lifelong) understanding of salvation as holiness of heart and life to his 1738 discovery of the knowledge of God’s love as gift and power, which became the engine of his later work.

We go with John and his brother, Charles, to Georgia.  We travel with him to Bavaria to learn from the Moravians.  And we glimpse his extraordinary ministry of preaching and writing throughout Britain.  But Knight keeps the focus on the controversies that fired him, the sermons and writings that revealed his deepening theology, and the Methodist apparatus he developed to support that theology.

The Wesley that emerges is not the rigorous obsessive we sometimes imagine from his journals, but a man truly fired by a notion of God’s love.  Wesley, in Knight’s telling, even has a warmth that keeps him in relationship with others, like George Whitfield, who could have been styled fierce opponents.

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Dr. Hal Knight

In the end, Knight chooses to highlight how Wesley could challenge Americans of our day.  In opposition to those who think that Christian salvation “is solely about our post-mortem destiny,” Wesley insists “it is about receiving a new life in the present, one that lasts through all eternity.” (141)  American spirituality, so prone to the belief that “there is a wonderful self inside of us waiting to be actualized,” could use a dose of Wesley’s realism about the human condition and the way “salvation comes from outside of ourselves, as a free gift of God, given through the cross of Jesus Christ and actualized in our lives by the Holy Spirit.” (142)  And Wesley’s focus on the need for accountable community and spiritual discipline could upend “the pervasive privatization of religion in American culture.” (143)

Talking about these things is a much better goal than trying to draw Wesley into the denominational anxieties of the largest Methodist body that traces back to him.  Wherever the UMC goes, it will need to come back to Wesley’s genius if it is once again to be about “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.”  That holiness is an appealing goal in Knight’s retelling.  And the book itself whets one’s appetite to know what has been and what will be.

Cascade Books provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  You can buy this book through Amazon and support this site:

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Yossi Klein Halevi’s Call Across the Wall

IMG_6997I don’t talk much on this blog about Palestine and Israel, even though you’ll see a link here to my 2014 book, A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine.  That’s partly due to the fact that the commitment of this site is to understanding rural life and ministry, particularly in the United States.

“But wait!” you may be saying.  “I saw your review of the Skylight Inn BBQ.  I saw your takedown of online surveys.  Heck, I even saw that ridiculous picture you posted of a screen window captioned with a dad joke.  Your editorial standards are pretty darn lax.  I think you could fit in more about one of the major conflicts in the world today.”

To which I say, “Thanks!  I had no idea you were reading so closely!”  But also.  Yes.

In my defense (and just why am I being defensive, anyway?), I did post a reflection last fall after my last trip to the region.  But there’s more to say.  Much more.  And some of it feels like a strange mirror on our own divides here in the U.S.

Reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s exquisite new book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, I am aware of how much Halevi’s way of talking about the conflict has given me a language for speaking about it.  Halevi is an American-born Israeli who lives in the French Hill neighborhood of East Jerusalem, separated by mere yards (and a security barrier) from his Palestinian neighbors who live…where?  Palestine?  The West Bank?  The Occupied Territories?  Judea?  The conflicting names for the same land form part of the disparity Halevi wants to overcome in this book, which is structured as ten letters intended for his unknown neighbors on the next hill.

Halevi has been attempting this journey for many years, though he started out as an unlikely candidate for the job.  A writer and commentator, Halevi began as a right-wing Jewish idealist.  His vision for the land of Israel included not only the West Bank of the Jordan, but the eastern bank as well.  

Since the 1980s when he moved there permanently, however, Halevi has been evolving along with his country.  “Few societies are as malleable, so prone to fundamental change in so short a time, as Israel,” Halevi says. (172) And he himself has undergone major shifts, thanks to a stint as a soldier patrolling Gaza, a spiritual journey into the Palestinian territories in the late 1990s that resulted in his first book, At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden, and his current role as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he has been trying to build bridges with American Muslim leaders.

I met Halevi in 2011 on my first trip to Israel.  He is a wise, warm soul who is more than ready to acknowledge that Israel has its flaws.  The 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation?  “It was your side that suffered the most devastating consequences,” he tells his interlocutor.  “Some 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.” (82)  The occupation?  “It penetrates the soul” and Israel must end it “not just for your sake but for ours.” (108) The fatal flaw of the settlement movement? “The sin of not seeing, of becoming so enraptured with one’s own story, the justice and poetry of one’s national epic, that you can’t acknowledge the consequences to another people of fulfilling the whole of your own people’s dreams.” (106)

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Yossi Klein Halevi

But don’t let these insights convince you that Halevi is a dove.  He sets out with all his spiritual openness to understand the Palestinian situation, but he is just as insistent that the Israeli narrative be heard as well.  “Can we,” he asks, “see each other as two traumatized peoples, each clinging to the same sliver of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither of whom will find peace or justice until we make our peace with the other’s claim to justice?” (21)

For the Palestinian neighbor to see this, s/he must hear about the long longing of the Jewish people, which was always a desire for return to this land.  In the 19th century, “the impetus for creating a political expression of the longing for return—restoring the Jewish relationship to Zion from time back into space—was dire need,” a need for an end to homelessness and persecution that gave birth to Zionism. (35)  

The only home that the Jews had ever had was in this land.  When suggestions were made that perhaps another place might suffice, (Uganda was offered in 1903), the Zionists refused the option of becoming colonialists and pursued the dream of return.   And when the opportunity arose, they came, from Eastern Europe, yes, but from all across the Arab world as well, to join the Jews who had remained in the land.

Halevi effectively shows the inaccuracy of the saying that Holocaust guilt in the West led to the establishment of Israel.  But the Holocaust lingers in the Israeli determination never to be victims again.

“Jewish history…spoke to my generation with two nonnegotiable commandments.  The first was to remember that we’d been strangers in the land of Egypt and the message was: Be compassionate.  The second commandment was to remember that we live in a world in which genocide is possible, and that message was: Be alert.  When your enemy says he intends to destroy you, believe him.” (110)

These commandments haunt the Israeli response to Palestinians today.  They are, at the same time, called to see and respect the Palestinian, but also take seriously the constant denials of Israel’s legitimacy that permeate Palestinian media and culture.

“We are trapped, you and I, in a seemingly hopeless…’cycle of denial.’ Your side denies my people’s legitimacy, my right to self-determination, and my side prevents your people from achieving national sovereignty.  The cycle of denial defines our shared existence, an impossible intimacy of violence, suppression, rage, despair.  That is the cycle we can only break together.” (115-6)

There is so much more here, as there is to any discussion of this seemingly bottomless relationship between the two peoples.  Halevi pushes hard on the religious understandings of both sides, believing that diplomats have been wrong to ignore this dimension.  “For peace to succeed in the Middle East,” he says, “it must speak in some way to our hearts.” (7)  In doing so, Halevi mostly reduces the conflict to Jews and Muslims, despite the fact that Christians still make up a significant minority of the Palestinian population.

The one place where a Christian does make an impact on Halevi’s story is on a joint pilgrimage to Auschwitz.  A Melkite priest from Nazareth, Abuna Emile Shoufani, takes a group of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis to the concentration camp—a group that included Halevi.  Despite his skepticism, Halevi was moved by the experience and appreciated Shoufani’s idealism.  “A Christian with an open heart to both sides had managed to bring Muslims and Jews together in Auschwitz.” (189)

American Christians try to bring so much intensity to Israel and Palestine.  We either accept Israel uncritically as a sign of God’s end-time plans or attack it mercilessly for the suffering of the occupation.  We are generally pragmatists who want to choose sides and fix things.

But what the Christian Shoufani brought was an openness to hear and see the people in front of him, in all of their humanity and with all of their story.  It’s the same openness Halevi is striving for.  He recognizes that the ongoing conflict is devastating to both peoples and it is “a spiritual crisis.” (186).  He wants to be heard, but he is listening, too.  There’s no better introduction to the heart of the Israeli people than this powerful book.

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